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SpaceShipTwo, the spacecraft that will take paying passengers to the edge of space, had its first manned free flight Sunday, dropping from the launch aircraft mothership Eve 45,000 feet above the Mojave Desert. Owner Virgin Galactic said the spacecraft, now named VSS Enterprise, glided to successful landing 11 minutes later at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the high desert of California. On board were pilot Pete Siebold and copilot Mike Alsbury. Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson was on hand in Mojave with his trademark enthusiasm in full force. "Now, the sky is no longer the limit and we will begin the process of pushing beyond to the final frontier of space itself over the next year," Branson said. All gushing aside, there were some substantial practical accomplishments achieved with the flight.
As the first commercial suborbital space venture, Virgin is being watched closely by government and the industry and safety is, of course, a primary consideration. All systems were checked, the reusable spacecraft's stall characteristics and general flight behavior were assessed and actual performance was checked against data projected by simulation. Siebold and Alsbury got in one practice approach at altitude before heading for the real thing. "The VSS Enterprise was a real joy to fly, especially when one considers the fact that the vehicle has been designed not only to be a Mach 3.5 spaceship capable of going into space but also one of the worlds highest altitude gliders," Siebold said.